Tuesday June 1st, 2010

CHICAGO -- Somewhere between Games 1 and 2, the track meet at the Stanley Cup Final morphed from a sprint to a racewalk. The Blackhawks, who limped to final buzzer, held off the Flyers, 2-1, to take the first two games at home. The contest looked nothing like the scrambling, frenetic opener that produced 11 goals and little attention to defense that the teams paid in the previous contest.

On Monday, the teams banged, dumped and chipped their way into offensive purgatory for 37 minutes until the Hawks scored on consecutive shifts by the overdue Marian Hossa and unlikely hero Ben Eager. Then Chicago played not to lose for the next 22 minutes, amazingly surrendering just a scant third-period goal to Simon Gagne and letting goaltender Antti Niemi clean up the mistakes their prevent defense couldn't prevent.

The 'Hawks now head to Philadelphia having escaped with a run-and-gun win and another that was crawl-and-stall

The first period already looked more measured than in Game 1. The teams combined for no goals on 12 shots, including just three by the Flyers, compared to five goals on 26 shots in Game 1. The Flyers had only three shots in the opening stanza, but let some other chances get away. Claude Giroux hit a post as the Flyers skated with six attackers during a delayed penalty call and Scott Hartnell was two full strides ahead of anyone on the ice when a lead pass jumped over his stick, enabling Niemi to move out and play it.

The Flyers came loaded with fire in the opening period. Coach Peter Laviolette kept two bruisers in the lineup, staying with Ian Laperriere and sitting James Van Riemsdyk in favor of Daniel Carcillo, who had sat for the previous two games. Carcillo announced himself with some ornery play in the first period, but threw his best hit on a teammate, aiming for Tomas Kopecky and instead taking out Jeff Carter at center ice.

Midway through the second period, the Flyers sprung Richards, who had just left the penalty box. With more room to skate in on Niemi, he released a 20-foot snapshot, but Niemi kicked it away with his right pad. Soon after, Niemi denied Richards, the Flyers keeper made a left-pad stop on Duncan Keith from nearly the same spot, as Patrick Sharp neatly fed the defenseman for a one-timer at the end of a 3-on-2 run.

Flyers netminder Michael Leighton was also much sharper after being pulled in Game 1. With the Hawks' top line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien held off the scoreboard for the second straight game, it took another struggling star to get Chicago rolling. Snakebitten for the better part of the spring, Hossa converted the second rebound of a Sharp shot, crowding the slot with Troy Brouwer, who had just gotten his stick on the rolling puck.

"It's been a long time [between goals]," said Hossa, who had gone eight games since his last goal in Game 3 against Vancouver in the Western semis. "I've been trying to work hard. It was a garbage goal I scored. Our line creates lots of chances, but finally we got a bounce. It's a relief ... I'd been trying to create chances, try not to get frustrated, but it gets in your head."

As much as Leighton improved his play from Game 1, making 24 saves on the night, the Hossa goal may have unnerved him. Just 28 seconds later, the Flyers turned the puck over at center ice, where Byfuglien picked it up. He sent Eager, a former Flyer, into the zone with a tap pass. The aptly named enthusiastic bruiser with one goal in 32 prior playoff games set up a screen through Flyers defenseman Matt Carle and fired a wristshot from the right circle into the top corner over Leighton's glove. It was a shot perhaps even Eager didn't know he had.

"It was pretty exciting," Eager said modestly of his rare strike. "[Our line] has been working hard this postseason. It was definitely a nice feeling to see that one go in. Hoss's goal really got the bench going. We got out there and got a nice bounce."

For much of the night, the Flyers had themselves to blame for the lack of rubber they threw at Niemi. "We all talked about tightening up defensively," said Flyers forward Danny Briere, "but tightening up defensively doesn't mean no forecheck and no offense. I thought we sat back on our heels a little too much."

That changed in the third period, when the Flyers pinched their defensemen more often, sent two forwards into the Chicago end, and forced the Hawks into a timid series of chipouts and icings. Philadelphia outshot Chicago, 15-4, but managed only a power-play goal by Gagne at the 5:20 mark. Niemi remained strong, making one of his best stops against Gagne on the doorstep with 30 seconds to play.

"I think we could've started a little better tonight," said Laviolette. "I thought their goaltender played extremely well in the third period. We had more than enough looks to tie up the game."

Now the Flyers, who probably deserve better than an 0-2 hole, need a different look on home ice Wednesday. "It happened against Boston," defenseman Kimmo Timonen pointed out. "We were down 2-0 and then actually lost at home, going to 3-0. So you know it's not time to panic. We've been here. We've done this before."

Only now they face a much tougher foe that has proven it can skate and knock heads with them in races both fast and slow.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.